Dispatches from the motherland: Even the construction is beautiful

I found my dream flat. Just within my budget, close to places I need to go, in a quiet 小区, lovely landlord who sometimes brings over bouquets of flowers, bright, spacious (for one person, i.e., me), thoughtfully designed, big desk for someone who works from home, plenty of light, nice big south-facing window with a mosquito screen, away from street noise, floor heating for winter, a filter for drinking water, top floor of a walkup… was it all too good to be true?


I really am a bit of a 倒霉蛋. The day after I moved in, work began next door to gut the neighbor’s apartment. Thankfully these units are small, so the demolition work was complete in a day. But the dust. There was so much dust. Watering eyes, shoes turned grey. My air filter worked overtime those first few days. In any case, the worst was over – or the loudest of it, anyway. Because what’s followed has been months of next-door renovation work – along with the long-awaited construction of elevators to serve the neighborhood’s ageing residents. The work sometimes starts as early as 6:30 a.m., way before the 8:00 a.m. start permitted by law.

Now, I’m cool with dodging debris, ducking the welding sparks spraying down from the scaffolding, and brushing dust off my clothes, yeah yeah, cool cool. The only thing that gets to me is the noise. It’s a constant gnawing at your brain, the opposite to that visceral feeling you get when the dentist uses that shrill implement on your molars that makes the hair in your ears stand on end; the sound is one you can feel deep within the bottom of your bowels.

Locked away in my apartment, ignorant of anything related to construction, this is what construction sounds like to me:

  1. A pimply teenaged boy on a pogo stick bouncing around on a marble floor.
  2. The hinges of a door creaking while someone tries to creep out of the nursery after finally putting their baby to sleep.
  3. Someone dragging the tines of a fork along the sidewalk.
  4. An audience groaning at a joke by someone who thinks himself hilarious trying his hand at stand-up comedy.
  5. The tap-tap-taaaap of morse code signals emitted from the ocean floor.
  6. A fairy rapping at my window with a dainty little fingernail.
  7. A pair of hippopotamuses yodeling at one another from across the vast valley which separates them (they’re in love, of course).
  8. An amateur dentist shaving down Dracula’s fangs with dull sandpaper.
  9. Jordan Poole dribbling (or carrying) a bowling ball next door.
  10. A goddess trapped in the body of a terrible beast crying for her gang of maidens to hurry up and get her out of here already.

Last night I think some of the sounds crept into my dreams and turned into a nightmare, jolting me from my slumber. I awoke in a sweat, and everything in my room was red, even though the lights were off and the blackout curtains were drawn. I was woken up a second time by my elderly neighbor giving an earful to a younger neighbor in Shanghainese. What they were fighting about, I have no idea. It was so late at night, and I had an exam the following day, so I didn’t bother to check the time. But whoever said Shanghainese is dying out, please come to my building and break up these midnight Shanghainese quarrels because I can’t understand a thing.

Despite all this, there are still blessings to count. The laborers are doing the very best they can to catch up on the construction backlog from our springtime lockdown event. The ageing residents will soon have an elevator to help them with their mobility needs. The next-door neighbor will soon be able to move into their flat. They speak Shanghainese. Maybe, if another midnight argument breaks out, they’ll act as a mediator between the neighbors while I am fast asleep dreaming of silence.

2 responses to “Dispatches from the motherland: Even the construction is beautiful”

  1. Have you a pair of earplugs? They help me a lot! I bet you can find some really good noise cancellation ones online!! We are living parallel lives, the next door neighbors are adding a story to their house but thankfully the jackhammering is behind us.


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